Wednesday, February 16, 2011

truth and stories

“What a good movie!  If only it had been a true story…”

Have you ever had this thought?  You’ve just invested two hours in a gripping tale.  It’s got you.  You’re fully engaged in the characters’ struggles and decisions.  You can sense the rising tension.  You know something is about to happen—some unexpected turn or revelation.  The music begins to raise to its crescendo.  And then… then…  the moment is revealed.  Everything falls into proper order.  Resolution arrives.  All is as it should be.  It was so good!  …If only it had been true.

carl and ellie
Up. Disney/Pixar 2009
Sarah and I were asked last summer to give leadership to our church’s young adults group—something that we had wanted to be involved in since leaving Eston last April.  Every second week a group of about three to twelve nestles into our living room and we spend the evening sharing our lives, exploring God’s Word, and praying together.   We’ve been discussing prayer, and how biblically we see individuals praying through their situations: be it anger and sin, doubt or sadness, fear and death.  Though our tendency is bury our experiences within, we have been intentionally attempting to bring what we are going through to God in prayer—allowing him to orient us to perceive our lives anew.  Last week the topic was Praying our Tears, and the first question of the study was “What was the last movie that made you cry?  Why?”  Among the movies mentioned were August Rush, Big Fish, Secretariat, Lion King and Finding Neverland.

There is a certain magic to stories, especially the good ones.  They are meant for far more than distraction.  Yes, they are entertainment.  Yet the best stories do more than just entertain—they touch the core of who we are.  They have an ability to teach us and delight us: to tell us something about life.  If we’re willing to listen.

I’ve mentioned John Eldredge before.  In another book of his, Epic, he speaks to how stories are so central to who we are:
Story is how we figure things out. . .Stories nourish us.  They provide a kind of food that the soul craves.  Stories shed light on our lives.
I believe that Eldredge is describing an idea that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis also held.  For those two, they believed that stories had the ability to convey truth: the truth of life and reality.  What is really going on here?  What is this really about?  And though we may gain some of that through true stories (those based in factual historical reality) there is also a sort of “truth-telling” in the stories which are completely fictional.

simba and pride rock
The Lion King. Walt Disney  1994.
One of my favourite quotes by Leland Ryken is in describing literature as “a lie which tells the truth.”  It’s a lie because it didn’t actually happen.  We all know that a lion cub didn’t actually lose his father in a wildebeest stampede which had been prearranged by his evil uncle.  He didn’t leave his calling and destiny to be king and become friends with a warthog and meercat.  He didn’t return years having accepted his calling again as true king to overthrow his usurping kinsman.  It didn’t happen.  It’s a lie.  And yet we love that story!  And time and time again I’ve heard good friends draw on it as a source for understanding their personal journey.  The Lion King might not be true in a historical or rational sense.  But it embodies some very real truth. 

august and dad
August Rush. Warner Brothers 2007.
Children do lose their parents before they should.  There are “evil uncles” in the world who plot to take their brothers' place and possessions.  There is a calling on our lives.  There are childhood friendships which blossom into true love.  There are those children who return renewed to their place of destiny and right the wrongs that have been dealt there.

It’s the same with August Rush.  As far as I know, there never was a child prodigy whose music drew his separated parents back together on the night of his first symphony performance.  But the truth is that sort of thing does happen: love does bring people back together.  August Rush may not be a “true” story.  It does something greater: it points us to deep truths—to thing which maybe can only be described in stories.

Perhaps we’ve gotten to used to seeing our lives as a dull thing.  Maybe we’ve forgotten that their are stories at work all around us—and within us! 

And that’s the idea which the son in Big Fish must grapple with as he watches his story-telling father lie on his death bed.  All his life the son has heard his dad tell his life as stories, as lies.  He’s sick of it.  He wants reality.  He wants to know what “really happened”.  Yet he thinks that to get reality, to get what’s really happening he needs to know just the facts.

son and father in big fish
Big Fish.  Columbia Tristar 2003.
The doctor finally tells the son what “actually happened” on the day he was born.  Finally some answers!  Yet as he hears “just the facts” he finds that they do not satisfy him as he thought they should.  You can see the disappointment register on his face.    Somehow his father’s stories, fantastic as they were, held more meaning—more truth—even though they were apparently lies.  Somehow the stories did tell what “really happened” for within them was held the deep meanings of what was truly going on.  Finally, at the end of the film, the son accepts the power of stories and only then is he able to let his ailing father die well.

Truth and stories.  Sometimes to understand reality, to know what’s really going on here, we don’t need a list of dates and information.  Sometimes we don’t need an argument, or propositions, or sermons.  Those things have their place.  But sometimes, maybe more often than we realize, what we crave our stories.  Stories which convey the deepest of truths in ways which only they can.

And that is when even fictional stories become true stories.

May you discover the stories that are all around you, and may their truths inspire you see life in new ways.

John Eldredge, Epic: The Story God is Telling (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).
Leland Ryken, Windows to the World (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000).

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